The Senate budget on Saturday went from scratching out funding for a police radio system to greatly expanding it, and possibly making the competitive bid process to upgrade it anything but competitive.
The current year budget included about $21.6 million in contract payments for the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System, but the Senate initially removed that funding in its 2021-22 budget proposal.
When the budget was first unveiled, Senate President Wilton Simpson said it showed the Legislature was willing to play hardball in order to put an end to a treacherous procurement process that’s lasted for the better part of a decade.
On Saturday, the Senate reinserted SLERS contract funding in its first offer for the Agriculture, Environment and General Government budget conference. The offer sets contract payments at $19 million, $1.5 million more than the House offer.
But the offer also includes another $17.5 million in previously unseen SLERS funding spread across three line items.
The largest is a $12.5 million payment for tower lease payments, followed by $3.5 million for “increased contracted services” related to the system. Another $1.5 million is marked down for more staff to administer the system at the Department of Management Services.
Overall, the Senate is pitching $36.5 million for SLERS in the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1.
The lease payments in particular point to L3Harris staying on as the project vendor. The company, formerly known as Harris Corp., has held the towers hostage since the bidding process for the new SLERS system first got off the ground in the mid-2010s.
Three years ago, when the state contracted Motorola Solutions to build out a new system based on an open-source radio technology known as Project 25, or P25, L3Harris flexed its control over the towers in court.
The towers were built by the state, but L3Harris was granted usage rights for decades.
In a lawsuit after Motorola won the contract, L3Harris argued that the state can’t let Motorola Solutions use the towers without L3Harris’ consent. And, as the suit made clear, the company would in no way consent.
The disputes have left the contract in limbo. L3Harris, then operating as Harris Corp., won the contract to build out the current system more than 20 years ago, but the tech that underpins it is deprecated and arguably dangerous — in Miami, Harris Corp. radios failed on multiple occasions when police were in physical altercations with suspects and needed backup.
The new buildout, law enforcement and their advocates argue, is urgently needed.
That buildout would cost millions, but the increased funding in the new budget could provide L3Harris an opportunity to forego a competitive bid process and upgrade the system without ever ceding control.
This is not the first time budget writers have including massive funding increases for the vendor. In 2016, Harris Corp. succeeded in getting a $7 million boost. Senators at the time railed against the move as a “back-door extension” to their contract, which is set to expire this year.
Despite a strongly worded statement from Simpson that the Senate “would not negotiate under duress,” the Senate’s funding pitch has raised concerns that L3Harris has succeeded in landing a no-bid contract by holding the state-built towers hostage.